Perhaps along with Blink, this is one of the best Doctor Who stories that the Doctor has little to do with. Indeed, if you only ever saw 1966’s The Tenth Planet you’d be convinced that all the First Doctor ever did was bark lines back at people while adding “Hmmmm?” like a confrontation Professor Yaffle.
Struck with bronchitis part way through filming his final story, Hartnell’s prickly Doctor spends an entire episode conveniently unconscious, and much of what remains either sat down or leaning on things while one of Sixties Who‘s most sophisticated and adult narratives plays out around him.
It’s a poignant end and even his final line to his companions as he shuffles through the South Pole snow to meet his Troughton-shaped destiny – “Keep warm” – feels less like the bombastic end of an era that would greet Eccleston and Tennant, and more the final rambling aside of someone’s dear old nan on their deathbed. It’s rather low key and affecting, as the events on screen emphasise the events behind the camera.
A product of the heavyweight team-up of script editor Gerry Davis and writer Kit Pedler, a doctor by trade who was on a mission to inject some hard science into Doctor Who, The Tenth Planet may introduce the Cybermen, but it’s scarcely their finest hour.
Instead, the the real triumph of this serial is in its Quatermass-like atmosphere of tension and Cold War paranoia that has more in common with classic Fifties flying saucer movies than anything else from this era of Who, and its prescient social concerns that show a bleak future for mankind lost to cybernetics and places a black astronaut in orbit decades before the reality.
The Cybermen are unrecognisable, and not just because of their slightly daft balaclavas and headlight ensemble. Like later, more visually effective Cybermen, their expressionless faces and toneless rise and fall of their electronically modulated voices undeniably eerie, and the sight of them emerging from a snowstorm is a powerful one, but there’s more humanity to these Mondasians compared to the later Telosians; their mission isn’t to conquer and subvert humanity, but to hold up a mirror to its own obsessions.
They may be emotionless, but the exposed hands (painted silver, but you can’t really tell), flickering eyes in the holes of the balaclava and personable sentence structure underlines their near-humanity, and the implications of that are just as horrifying as the enclosed Cybermen bursting from their honeycomb in Tomb Of The Cybermen. It’s an aspect of the Cybermen that hasn’t been dealt with nearly enough as they increasingly became the Other Daleks – cranked out to fit whatever cartoonish supervillainy (Earthshock and Silver Nemesis being the classic series nadir) needed an expressionless robot face that week.
Pedler and Davis would later create the BBC’s heavyweight environmental answer to Quatermass in 1970’s Doomwatch, and there’s an element of that in the crew of the polar base who shoulder the exposition in lieu of the flagging Hartnell, much to the story’s strength as supporting characters take a far more active role in the unfolding thriller than is usually the case – debating the pros and cons of launching a doomsday missile and bathing half the globe in radiation. Similarly, Pedler and Davis pre-figure Gene Roddenberry’s egalitarian Starfleet with the multinational crew of the ice-locked Snowcap base, giving Hartnell’s infamous bigotry an outlet off-camera according to companion actor Anneke Wilkes in the revealing making-of documentary.
As one of the flagship catalogue releases in the 50th Anniversary year, and a classic story with special significance, 2entertain have gone all out with special features – there’s a fantastic making-of documentary, a long interview with an exuberant Wilkes that has some lovely shadow-puppet idents showing the First Doctor, War Machines and – more in a style you can’t help but long for more of – a disjointed but disarmingly frank interview with Hartnell backstage at a pantomime. Joining them are a couple of fun companion-centric featurettes that somehow ignore how The Tenth Planet‘s actual companions, Polly (Wilkes) and Ben (Michael Craze), are two of the least remarkable (“What kind of chair is that?”” asks Polly at one point, “It’s horrible!”) in an era that specialised in dishwater dull sidekicks (Dodo, Vicki, Steven).
The low point is an embarrassingly defensive and pointed propaganda film about how people who think Doctor Who used to be better are entitled to their opinion, but that opinion is wrong, especially when it’s coming from critics. But that’s just 15 minutes, and the newly animated episode four (wiped by the BBC) makes up for any snafus alone – produced very much in the same style as the one accompanying Reign Of Terror, The Ice Warriors and The Invasion is lovingly reconstructed and set to the original audio, perfectly maintaining the flow of the story.